For the latest installment of our Then and Now series where we compare the very first model in a particular Rolex collection with its most recent counterpart, we’re turning to the Milgauss. Although this model may not be quite a household name like the Submariner or the Daytona, like other Rolex watches it was built for a specific purpose for a specific audience. Furthermore, the Milgauss is an intriguing model because unlike other Rolex watches, the modern equivalent bears little resemblance to the inaugural edition. Let’s dig in.
The Rolex Milgauss Backstory
When approaching the development of a new watch, Rolex oftentimes looked to solve a practical problem for a particular group of people. For instance, the Submariner was made in 1953 as a tool watch for divers while the GMT-Master was unveiled in 1955 to help commercial pilots track multiple time zones.
In the 1950s, the Swiss watchmaking company also realized that there was a set of people, comprised of engineers, scientists, and doctors, in need of a watch that could withstand exposure to high magnetic fields due to the nature of their professions. As some of you may know, magnetism is the archenemy of mechanical watches by causing havoc on timekeeping precision and accuracy. So Rolex began developing a new type of antimagnetic watch.
The First Rolex Milgauss
Rolex launched the Milgauss ref. 6541 in 1956, boasting antimagnetic capabilities of up 1,000 gauss—the unit used to measure magnetism. The watch takes its name from this ability since mille is French for one thousand. To prove the Milgauss’ antimagnetic properties, the watch was tested by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). It’s worth noting that there was an earlier model, the Milgauss ref. 6543, however, this is considered by most as a prototype produced in very low quantities. So, for the purposes of this article, we’re following the brand’s lead that the ref. 6541 was the first official Milgauss made for mass production.
Built in stainless steel, the Milgauss ref. 6541 included a 38mm Oyster case without crown guards and a riveted Oyster bracelet. A 38mm case was quite large for the era but it was necessary to accommodate the iron shields protecting the automatic movement (the Cal. 1065) from magnetic fields. This technique is based on the principles of a “Faraday Cage,” invented by Michael Faraday in 1836.
Looking at that very first Milgauss, one element that really stands out is the black rotating bezel similar to the Turn-O-Graph and Submariner. While the inaugural Milgauss ref. 6541 shared some design details with other Rolex models of the times, there’s one that’s unique to this antimagnetic timepiece. And that’s the lightning bolt seconds hand in honor of the scientific community the watch was made for. The black dial features a honeycomb pattern, which apparently also provides some protection from magnetism. Other details on the dial include round luminescent markers, triangular indexes at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, luminescent Alpha style hour and minute hands, and a red “MILGAUSS” label.
The Newest Rolex Milgauss
After a few different models, Rolex eventually discontinued the production of the Milgauss in 1988. But in a surprising move, Rolex brought back their antimagnetic watch in 2007 with the Milgauss ref. 116400. The newest version from the modern collection is the Milgauss ref. 116400GV with a Z-Blue dial, introduced at Baselworld 2014.
Yes, both the first and the last Milgauss can resist 1,000 gauss of magnetism, are time-only models, have stainless steel Oyster cases and Oyster bracelets, and include the signature lightning seconds hand, but that’s about where the similarities end.
The Milgauss ref. 116400GV Z-Blue features a 40mm Oyster case with a smooth steel bezel. The case houses a vibrant electric blue dial, orange accents, baton style luminescent hour markers, and straight luminescent center hands. One of the most interesting elements however is the green-tinted sapphire crystal (aka GV/Glace Verte) protecting the dial. Rolex claims that it is so difficult to produce this special colored sapphire crystal that they didn’t even bother filing a patent for it.
Encased within the Milgauss ref. 116400 is the COSC-Certified Rolex Cal. 3131 with, yet again, a protective magnetic shield. Water resistant to 100 meters thanks to the construction of the Oyster case, the Cal. 3131 has a 48-hour power reserve and is equipped with a Paramagnetic blue Parachrom hairspring for added robustness.
The Rolex Milgauss Evolution, Then and Now
In our previous Then and Now articles, we’ve noted how similar modern iterations of certain Rolex watches are to their originals. However, this is hardly the case with the Milgauss. In fact, it’s clear that the newest Milgauss ref. 116400GV Z-Blue is vastly different than that first Milgauss ref. 6541.
With its bright color scheme and powers against the evil that is magnetism, the modern Milgauss happily lives on today as Rolex’s quirkiest watch. While its unique design is certainly not for everyone, the Milgauss ref. 116400GV with the Z-Blue dial is a captivating interpretation of the maiden Milgauss watch.